Diets high in ultra-processed foods, sugars, and unhealthy fats can increase heart disease risk. Changing your diet can have a positive effect on your heart, even if you already have heart disease.
Your heart is a complex organ that works continuously to provide your body with a constant supply of oxygenated blood.
It’s part of the cardiovascular system, which also includes arteries, veins, and capillaries.
Research suggests that diet may be the most preventive factor in heart disease-related death, which accounts for one-third of global mortality. Following a heart-healthy diet can significantly reduce your chance of developing heart disease and even heart disease-related death.
This article explains how diet impacts heart health and shares evidence-based ways to reduce heart disease risk and promote optimal cardiovascular health using simple, realistic dietary changes.
Your diet affects the health of every part of your body, including your heart.
Heart disease risk factors are categorized as modifiable or non-modifiable. Diet falls into the modifiable category because it’s something that you can change, unlike other risk factors like age or genetics.
Specifically, diet can help reduce the following risk factors for heart disease:
- Blood pressure: This can damage blood vessels and narrow arteries, which
increasesthe strain on your heart. It can lead to an enlarged heart and increase the risk of heart failure. Research shows that a healthy diet low in sugar, calories, and salt but high in nutritious foods like vegetables, nuts, olive oil, and fish is linked to a 44% lower riskof high blood pressure.
- Blood fat: Elevated levels of blood lipids, including low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol and triglycerides, can lead to atherosclerosis and
increase your chanceof heart disease. Eating a diet high in fiber-rich plant foodsand low in added sugarand processed foods can help reduce this risk.
- Blood sugar and insulin: High blood sugar and insulin resistance can lead to an accumulation of compounds called
advanced glycation end-products (AGEs)and the creation of oxidative stress, which can damage the heart’s function. This can lead to diabetes and coronary artery disease (CAD), which are more likelyif you’re eating a diet of ultra-processed foods and added sugar.
- Body weight: The Western diet high in calorie-dense foods
can leadto weight gain and heart issues like fibrosis, high blood pressure and lipids, and diabetes. As a result, obesity increasesheart disease risk, but even just too much abdominal fat is a risk factorin itself.
A note on weight discrimination
Although studies often suggest that obesity is a risk factor for certain health conditions, they rarely account for the role weight stigma and discrimination play in health. Discrimination is one of the social determinants of health — the conditions in daily life that affect our health — and it can and does contribute to health inequities.
Meanwhile, experiences of weight stigma in daily life, inside and outside of medical settings,
Everyone deserves appropriate and compassionate medical care. If you’re interested in finding weight-inclusive healthcare professionals, you may want to follow the work of the Association for Size Diversity and Health, which is developing a directory that will launch in summer 2022.
Through decades of research, scientists have narrowed down which diets are most associated with a healthy heart and low risk of cardiovascular disease.
Some studies have found that adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet could decrease the risk of heart disease by as much as
Following a Mediterranean-style diet can include non-Mediterranean cultural foods
Remember that choosing an eating pattern rooted in the principles of the Mediterranean diet doesn’t have to mean giving up your cultural foods.
In fact, it’s important that your eating habits incorporate foods that are easy to access locally and meaningful to you culturally or personally.
For example, learn more about giving the Mediterranean diet a Caribbean twist here.
For example, a 2021 review of 10 studies involving 698,707 people found that people with the highest adherence to plant-based diets had a
That said, plant-based diets high in refined grains, sugar-sweetened beverages, and highly processed snacks
Generally, diets that are most associated with improved heart health outcomes are high in plant foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds and low in ultra-processed foods, processed and red meats, and added sugar.
A 3-day heart-healthy menu
Here’s a 3-day heart-healthy meal plan to help get you started.
An important reminder
Keep in mind that this diet is not meant to treat pre-existing conditions that affect the heart, like heart failure.
If you have a heart condition and aren’t sure what to eat, talk with a healthcare professional. They can refer you to a registered dietitian who can give you specific dietary advice based on your health needs.
- Breakfast: an egg omelet made with sautéed peppers, kale, and onions served with sliced avocado and berries
- Lunch: lentil soup served with a green salad with pumpkin seeds, feta cheese, cherry tomatoes, olive oil, and balsamic vinaigrette
- Dinner: salmon with pesto served with broccoli and roasted sweet potatoes
- Snacks: trail mix made with almonds, cashews, sunflower seeds, and dried cherries
- Breakfast: overnight oats made with almond butter, chia seeds, cashew milk, golden raisins, and mixed berries
- Lunch: Mediterranean quinoa salad with arugula, chickpeas, sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, olives, and feta cheese with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette
- Dinner: baked chicken breast with butternut squash and asparagus
- Snacks: unsweetened Greek yogurt with diced apples, sliced almonds, and cinnamon
- Breakfast: shakshuka — a Mediterranean-style breakfast made with eggs and tomatoes — served with a slice of sprouted grain bread topped with mashed avocado and chili flakes
- Lunch: grilled shrimp and pineapple kabobs over a large green salad with an olive oil and herb vinaigrette
- Dinner: black bean burgers served with cucumber and red onion salad and roasted herbed potato wedges
- Snacks: garlic hummus with fresh vegetable sticks
Following a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods like the ones above while limiting foods and beverages associated with negative heart health outcomes can help keep your cardiovascular system healthy and reduce your risk of heart disease.
Foods to eat
Your diet as a whole matters most when it comes to disease prevention, but regularly consuming the following foods can benefit the health of your heart and promote overall wellness.
- Fruits: All fruit benefits
heart health, but citrus fruits, apples, pears, and berries may be especially cardioprotective.Fruits are high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds like anthocyanins.
Some studiessuggest that onions, garlic, cruciferous vegetables, leafy green vegetables, and carrots may have greater heart health benefits than other vegetables, though all vegetables are heart-healthy.
- Seafood: Seafood is high in nutrients like omega-3 fats, which benefit cardiovascular health. A
2020 reviewfound that each 100-gram increase in fish consumption was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease, heart attack, and heart failure.
- Legumes: Beans and lentils are loaded with fiber and minerals like magnesium and potassium, which are essential to cardiovascular health.
Some studiesshow that legume-rich diets are associated with lower rates of heart disease. However, more research is needed.
- Whole grains: Foods like quinoa, brown rice, and oats are high in fiber and other nutrients associated with improved heart health. Replacing refined grains with whole grains
may help reduceheart disease risk.
- Healthy fats: Adding sources of healthy fats like olive oil, olives, nuts and seeds, fatty fish, and avocado to your diet may help improve heart health. Olive oil, an important part of Mediterranean-style diets, seems to be especially
Researchshows that spices like turmeric, garlic, saffron, and ginger have powerful anti-inflammatory effects and may help reduce heart disease risk factors.
Foods to avoid
These components are linked to an
Generally, it’s a good idea to
- High sodium foods
- Fresh or frozen vegetables or meats with sauces or marinades
- pre-made sauces or ready-to-eat rice or pasta
- fatty meats or poultry with skin
- butter, lard, or coconut and palm oil
- sweetened snacks, desserts, or drinks
That said, the term “processed foods” includes various products, many of which are more convenient and less expensive than other foods. Not all foods that undergo processing are considered unhealthy or harmful. Learn more about identifying healthy food vs junk food.
Even so, it’s a good idea to cook your own food as much as possible, as restaurant or pre-made foods are more likely to be processed and unhealthy for your heart.
But you don’t have to avoid eating out entirely. Just be conscious about what you choose to eat out of the house, and read labels carefully. Also, try to limit how much alcohol you consume to
Learn how to read food labels.
[the terms “male” and “female”]
In this article, we use “male and female” to refer to someone’s sex as determined by their chromosomes and “men and women” when referring to their gender (unless quoting from sources using nonspecific language).
Sex is determined by chromosomes, and gender is a social construct that can vary between time periods and cultures. Both of these aspects are acknowledged to exist on a spectrum both historically and by modern scientific consensus.
What is the best breakfast for heart patients?
Any breakfast that excludes processed foods and includes plenty of healthy protein, fruit, and vegetables is good for your heart. For example, try eggs with avocados and berries or oatmeal with raisins and chia seeds.
What is the 3-day heart diet?
The 3-day heart diet claims that you can lose up to 10 pounds (4.5 kg) in just three days. However, it’s been criticized as too difficult to follow, ineffective, and potentially harmful to your health.
What are the best drinks for your heart?
Studies show that your diet can either increase or decrease your risk of developing heart disease.
While diets high in ultra-processed foods and added sugar have been associated with increased risk, dietary patterns high in fiber-rich plant foods like fruits and vegetables, fish, and healthy fats like olive oil can support heart health.
Whether you’re living with heart disease or simply trying to reduce your risk of developing cardiovascular disease in the future, making a few simple dietary changes can have a profound effect on your heart health.
Just one thing
Try this today: Looking for heart-healthy snacks? Check out my article on healthy and energizing snack ideas.